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Diaghilev's Theatre of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and its Aftermath

On Exhibit June 26-September 13, 2009

by Elizabeth McPherson

September, 2009 -- The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Ballets Russes, “Diaghilev’s Theatre of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and its Aftermath” was curated by Lynn Garafola, noted author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The artifacts on display are from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Slavic & East European Collections of The New York Public Library, with additional materials on loan from various organizations and individuals. As the title of the exhibit implies, it shows great breadth of time by extending into the aftermath of the Diaghilev company through documenting Colonel Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes and Serge Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as well as contemporary companies that performed or still perform Ballets Russes repertory.

On entering the exhibit, it was difficult to decide what to experience first. Paintings and drawings leapt out from the walls, multiple videos vied for my attention, and costumes in cases pulled me towards them. There were also letters, posters, music scores, and playbills. Although it was museum-like in display, that this exhibit celebrated a vital, flaming period in the history of both visual and performing arts was immensely evident.

As I began walking along the outer walls, I was struck by the intricate beauty of original watercolor and pencil Léon Bakst costume designs for such ballets as the 1921 “Sleeping Princess” while Pablo Picasso’s gigantic “Parade” (1917) costumes (reproduced by the Joffrey Ballet) towered over me with a sort of cubist impertinence. Also striking was a painting c1919 by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky simply titled “Mask.” The descriptive card noted that this was painted at the beginning of Nijinsky’s descent into serious mental illness. The painting depicts a large eyeball and reminded me of the ever-present Charlatan in “Petrouchka” (1911). Not far from this painting is a video clip from “Petrouchka,” danced by the Joffrey Ballet in 1981. The portion shown is a crowd scene, and the design and mapping of such a large number of people to depict the chaos of a street fair is mesmerizing.

In the center of the room are glass cases with more artifacts including a pair of Anna Pavlova’s pointe shoes made by Nicolini. The satin is a bit worn, but the shoes still seem to hold the shadow of their original wearer. Also of great interest to me in the center cases were letters written to Diaghilev from Cole Porter, George Balanchine, and Serge Lifar. Letters are remarkable to me often for their sheer ordinariness. These iconic figures of the twentieth century art world communicated with each other regarding dinner parties and management details just as we do today whether famous or not. Serge Lifar’s letter is a love letter that imparts his intense feelings for Diaghilev. It is at once moving and disturbing to think of the power Diaghilev held over this young man. I also had the odd thought of fast-forwarding 100 years from today -- will the next century’s exhibits show email messages between great artists? It seems terribly mundane.

At the far end of the exhibit hall is a display of six video clips shown on small adjacent screens. There are benches in front of the screens with headphones and buttons you can press to hear the sounds from any of the six clips. These range from a 1915 film of Anna Pavlova to New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” (1929) with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role. Seeing all the clips running at once gave me a sense of the immensity of influence Diaghilev’s company had on twentieth century dance.

Fundamental to Diaghilev’s vision and his legacy is the collaboration between artists and art forms. A nod is given to Merce Cunningham (who followed in Diaghilev’s footsteps in terms of collaborations between artists and art forms) with an amusing David Levine caricature that shows Diaghilev dreaming of Cunningham who is in the air in a gigantic leap over Diaghilev’s head. It was the last artifact I examined and an apt one that sent me away wondering – “what comes next?”

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